Mixing drinks that don’t taste like they were wrung out of a wet t-shirt from a spring break dance party can be tough for newcomers. This I know from hard, unpleasant experience. For this I apologize to all affected parties over the years.

And so I appreciate attempts like this one, from a recent issue of bon appetit magazine, to convey some practical fundamentals of mixology to a lay audience. It’s a simple graphic that illustrates how to assemble a basic sour cocktail from, well, just about anything you have around.

Follow a formula — 2 oz base/1.5 oz modifiers equally split between sweet and sour — and it’s hard to mess up too badly, no matter what’s in the bottles. The results are solid, if unspectacular. Good bones, as they say.

Sour wheel A Measured Spirit Craig Stoltz

Sure, it’s a rigid and simplistic approach to a practice many have elevated to an art. But even a Tour de France competitor starts out on training wheels. And some people never want to do more than take pleasant rides around the neighborhood.

Besides, there are precedents for a mathematical approach to mixology.

The Masters of Mixological Math

  • This approach was first consolidated and socialized by the oddly rigorous work of lawyer and amateur mixologist David Embury, whose 1948 book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks takes the idea of universally applicable proportions and a master taxonomy of alcoholic drinks to a nutty, earnest extreme. Most of the drinks are pretty good. None is terrible, at least among those I’ve tried, but maybe I need to spend more time with the book to find a stinker.
  • This concept is elevated to masterful extreme of nuttiness by the Mixilator, a “scienterrific” tool developed by Dr. Ted Haigh, founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail among many other distinctions. The tool spits out randomly generated recipes based on Embury’s concepts and a huge, eclectic virtual barful of ingredients. You may spit the drinks out too, but that’s part of the idea — to illustrate the limits, and value, of this approach to making drinks.

So let’s see where these equations take us

Here is bon appetit’s Gold Rush, a classic sour that can be made serviceably using the 2/.75/.75 proportion. [The texture is better when made with a rich honey syrup, but that’s a quibble.]

Gold Rush recipe courtesy bon appetit

  • 2 ounces bourbon
  • ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
  • ¾ ounce honey

By contrast, here is a randomly generated “strong” “sour-style” from the Mixilator, which applies one of Embury’s different proportional bases:

Hell a Kipper recipe courtesy Mixilator via David Embury

  • 3 oz Jack Daniels
  • ½ oz Hawaiian Punch
  • 1 dash crème de noisette

I think I’ll have me a Gold Rush, followed by Hell a Kipper.

Now that’s better living through science.